It became clear how this game was going to play out for the defense fewer than five minutes after it started.
On third-and-2 with 12:34 remaining in the first quarter of the New Orleans’ Saints 38-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo took a snap from the shotgun and immediately found himself under pressure.
The Saints rushed only four men, but that appeared to be enough. Defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley was the first to get to Romo and grabbed a handful of his jersey, but the quarterback slipped away.
Romo stepped up to the left, nearly into the grasp of defensive end Junior Galette, but again he averted danger.
Linebacker Curtis Lofton was aware of the situation and came crashing down into the backfield as Romo rolled out to the right sideline. Unfortunately, he was too late, and tight end Jason Witten was in the process of pulling in a 16-yard pass as Lofton hit Romo.
The whole scene took 7.78 seconds. And from there, things only got worse for the Saints. Nothing they did on defense seemed to work. There were communication errors, uncovered receivers, and missed tackles.
In other words, everything the team appeared to fix in a Week 3 win over the Minnesota Vikings resurfaced to sink New Orleans to 1-3.
Where they go from here is anyone’s guess, but there’s a lot of cleaning up to do on both sides of the ball if this team hopes to get back on track.
Here’s how the Saints grade out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis
2 out of 4
Drew Brees completed 72 percent of his passes for 340 yards. But it didn’t feel like he had that kind of a performance. A lot of those numbers came in garbage time after a slow start to the first half.
-- Dallas did not make things easy on him. They dropped seven or more men into coverage on 34 of his 44 attempts, often forcing him to check down or throw into coverage. Too often, Brees took the riskier approach. He was picked off only once, but that number could have easily been four or five.
-- His 46-yard pass to Kenny Stills was about as good as you’ll see. Brees’ average time to throw was a quick 2.42 seconds.
2 out of 4
There was much here in terms of running the ball. Khiry Robinson broke loose for a 62-yard gain that was the result of his own talents after hitting a hole opened by Jahri Evans. He also had an 11-yard run on a cutback that was impressive, but there was little else of note.
-- Travaris Cadet was impressive as a receiver. He was one of only a few players who routinely got open and looked good on a 31-yard reception deep down the field off a wheel route.
2 out of 4
Good to see Marques Colston come to life and catch five passes for 50 yards.
-- The performance here was too uneven. It’s difficult to get open when so many guys are dropping into coverage, and the offensive line isn’t giving the receivers enough time to get open, but the Saints wasted the first half trying to figure things out. Players need to get open — and they did later in the game.
-- Jimmy Graham has to hold onto the football. It’s a tough play, but his fumble in the red zone was a killer. He also dropped a pass.
-- These are the kind of games where you would like to see Brandin Cooks excel. He’s quick and seems to have the ability and speed to quickly get open. Have him run some slants over the middle.
2 out of 4
This group was underwhelming. Center Jonathan Goodwin (five hurries) did not seem to be fully healthy. And Bryce Harris, who entered the game in the first quarter after Terron Armstead suffered a concussion, did not impress. There was way too much pressure allowed against a defense that primarily operated with a four-man rush.
1.5 out of 4
Not a whole lot of positives to highlight this week. The defensive line struggled to get pressure and was ineffective against the run. The starting defensive line accounted for only five hurries, one each for Akiem Hicks and Brodrick Bunkley, and three for Junior Galette. Cam Jordan had a pseudo hurry on the Cowboys’ final touchdown of the first half, but he was slow hitting a hole on an all-out blitz, and it did not impact the play.
-- The Saints continue to have some success when placing Jordan and Galette on the same side of the line of scrimmage. Galette recorded a hurry out of this look, but both players were badly blocked out on DeMarco Murray’s 28-yard touchdown run with 6:53 remaining in the third quarter.
-- Hicks and Bunkley both recorded two run stuffs. It was a nice turnaround for Bunkley, who had only two entering the game. Hicks had only one last week, but he recorded several against the Browns.
1 out of 4
The Saints defense couldn’t stop the run. It wasn’t an individual failure. It was a team failure — with several individuals looking poor at various moments. As things began to fall apart, desperation set in, and things further imploded. One particularly poor moment came with 2:34 remaining in the second quarter when Curtis Lofton, Ramon Humber and Rafael Bush wrapped up Murray. But instead of tackling him, they all went for a strip. Murray skirted free and picked up 22 yards on what should have been a 7-yard gain.
-- Most will likely be harsh when grading the linebackers, but Lofton and Parys Haralson all had some positive moments. Lofton had four run stuffs, and Haralson recorded a hurry and a stuff. But both Humber and Lofton had issues in coverage and were at fault several times in the running game. The Saints missed David Hawthorne.
-- Credit Haralson for saving a touchdown in the second quarter when he signaled to Jairus Byrd that Devin Street was uncovered on the outside. Byrd got over and broke up the pass.
-- The defense as a whole became susceptible to play-action fakes after Murray started moving the ball. The most egregious example came on a 24-yard screen to Lance Dunbar when the whole team bit on a fake, allowing the running back to get wide open for the screen.
2 out of 4
Keenan Lewis is the only member of the defense who escapes individual scorn this week. He matched up on Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant on nearly ever snap and shut him down for most of the game. Lewis was beaten badly once on an out route and later gave up a touchdown, but that’s acceptable against one of the better talents in the league. The other reception he gave up was on a curl route when he provided Bryant with a 10-yard cushion off the line.
-- The defense adjusted its coverage coming out for the third quarter. During the first half, Lewis met his man at the line of scrimmage, while Corey White or whoever was playing opposite of him on the outside often provided a cushion. In the third quarter, everyone was playing tight coverage. It did not remain this way, as later in the half, the cushions and zone concepts came back on some snaps.
-- Kenny Vaccaro matched up with Jason Witten on several snaps. He lost a few times, but surrendered only three receptions to the tight end.
-- Jairus Byrd had some trouble tackling early in the game. He missed an arm tackle on a Murray 17-yard run in the first quarter and took a bad angle on Murray’s 15-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Byrd did, however, bounce back with some big tackles later in the game.
-- There were two coverage breakdowns on Dallas’ final scoring drive of the first that allowed Witten and Cole Beasley to get open for receptions.
2 out of 4
The punting made up for the kicking. Thomas Morstead hung his two punts for an average of 4.78 seconds. Neither was returned. The score falls because Shayne Graham missed a 41-yard field goal.